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Christopher Nolan’s Masterful Dunkirk Tells the Story of Unsung Heroes

“God created war so that Americans would learn geography.”
― Mark Twain

Christopher Nolan has made a career of putting characters in suffocating situations while the grandness of his cinematic vision surrounds them. That world of color, light, and tension reaches out in all directions and can’t easily be contained. That’s why Nolan works well in IMAX. No ordinary screen is big enough. Perhaps that’s because as a young man Nolan’s mind was in space, in reaching far beyond this blue planet. It’s why his storytelling often fights to escape convention. This is true in time benders, on the streets of Gotham, and space epics. But there is no escaping history. In his masterpiece Dunkirk, Nolan takes on something much more accessible: a famous evacuation during World War II whose outcome was an inflection point of immense magnitude.

Dunkirk is Nolan’s tribute to those who bravely survived one of the worst days of the war. It is a tribute to the fishermen in England who heard the call and defied the sea and Hitler to save the men who bravely fought to help save Europe. What makes Dunkirk a Nolan film with such power and resonance is that for the first time, you can feel a personal connection to this visionary auteur.

The story itself traps the men in history. We know the ending. We know why they were there. Filmmakers can take us deep inside the everyday horrors like no other medium can. Some do it better than others. In recent years, Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan have upped the game considerably, and really no one has come close to them until now. What makes WWII so compelling to bring back on film? There were so many different moving parts, armies, countries, objectives. The evil was evil unlike anything the modern world had ever seen. The good was heroism that beat back a force that was not going to stop until it had subjugated the world under the the Nazi swastika. Most cinematic forms of evil stem, in some ways, from Hitler and his Nazi army.

The evacuation of Dunkirk, Operation Dynamo, took place between the end of May and the beginning of June 1940, in the aftermath of a crushing Allied defeat against the Nazis that left close to 400,000 troops trapped and stranded on the northern beaches of France. Because adequate resources were unavailable from the Allied armies, for nine days hundreds rescue boats launched from England — many just ordinary fishing boats and pleasure craft — which were being bombed by the Luftwaffe, Hitler’s aerial army. It’s one thing to know the story, to know why it was such an important turning point during the war, but it’s a whole other thing to experience the interwoven threads of chaos, moment by moment.

Nolan shows us up close what it must have felt like to be trapped like that, at the edge of the world, with Hitler’s ferocious onslaught closing in and the English Channel churning as both barrier and lone path to safety. The armies of France, Belgium, and Britain had simply not been prepared for drugged up Nazis preparing to conquer the world. That lack of preparation is evident in this film, which shows a rag tag crew doing whatever necessary to survive. Nolan lays out each scene in non-sequential order so that you have to piece together the mystery of how these men got where they were, why we see them laid out in the water one moment but then in a boat a few minutes later. Nolan pulls the loose threads tight by the film’s end, when he zooms out to macro and everything fits into place. Dunkirk’s final moments are some of the most beautiful scenes ever put to film, in a dazzling finale.

Nolan’s camera does not like limitations. It prefers the crackling organic film to the nubile digital. It yearns for 70mm, because how else to depict such expansive scenes that stretch from the shores of Dunkirk, across the English Channel, and into the air above both. Nolan tells the story of the Dunkirk evacuation in three parts, following three characters who experience the rescue from three different vantage points — from the soldiers on the ground and in the sea, from the ordinary men who took to their boats to help rescue the stranded soldiers, to the volunteer pilots tasked with maintaining air defense and engaging Nazi fighters.

The cast works more as an ensemble rather than showcase any one performance. But Mark Rylance is always great and of course he nearly steals the show here, even in such an understated role as a fisherman representing ordinary heroism. Of course he’s great, but Harry Styles is so good you barely remember that he’s that Harry Styles.

Christopher Nolan is a restless filmmaker who rarely plays it safe. While he’s always flirted with the kind of status he will most certainly attain this year, Dunkirk is the film that should finally put Nolan in the category reserved for the greatest filmmakers. Although some might be frustrated that this is yet another movie about white male heroes, it’s worth remembering that those men — many of whom died that day, some of whom were captured by the Nazis and never got off the beach — did what many of us never could: survived something we may never be asked to live through, and fought a war to beat back one of the most dangerous men in human history ever to rise to power.

I’ve never seen a film like Dunkirk, one that illuminates an event I’ve read about many times but never fully appreciated until it was brought to life before my eyes. Until now I never truly thought about what it must have felt like to be trapped, quite literally, between good and evil. One of the reasons we return to stories about this war is that the lines were so clearly drawn. Though Winston Churchill does not appear in Dunkirk, there’s a reason why his presence resonates most, especially this year. There is a shortage of courage in our government as we face down an oppressive Russian autocrat who, in many ways, represents a threat as dangerous as Hitler.

In the end, Dunkirk does not sugarcoat how the men were received when all they did was “survive” being rescued. If history has not always remembered these brave men well enough, Nolan at last gives them their due.

Rylance may be the best bet for an acting nomination, but Dunkirk should be considered for every category in the race that it’s eligible for. Needless to say, Nolan himself is way overdue to receive even a nomination for Best Director. He’s been overlooked at the Oscars for three astonishing films that the DGA chose to recognize, but that will not be his fate this year. Dunkirk will get lots of nominations and it deserves lots of nominations.

Nolan has always hinted that he had a film like this in him. Many of his films have come close. We’ve seen already what Nolan can do cinematically. None of Dunkirk’s countless cinematic riches are surprising. But it’s the honesty in the storytelling, the willingness to subdue his usual impulse to wrap reality inside twisting packages of surreality, that is most surprising here. Though structurally complex, Dunkirk never wavers from linear clarity. Nolan lets its sweeping tragedy burrow deep through brutal maelstroms to touch striking veins of bare emotion. Films like this can demand those grace notes of sentimentality because their overwhelming stories are that big, that important, that meaningful. We tell such stories to remember that our humanity, our courage, our heroism are non-negotiable. Nolan cares about this story. He cares about this history. And now he’s shown us why we should care too.